Claire Beale on advertising: Famous brands are heading for mediocrity by pulling 'offensive' ads sets a dangerous precedent

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The Independent Online

So, there's a woman. We know it's a woman because we can just see her long tousled hair. And she's definitely got a woman's back: beautifully curvy, and naked. Well, naked except for a bottle of Guinness.

And she's, erm, rocking. And the Guinness bottle, balanced artfully on the dip of her spine, is rocking. Backwards and forwards. It's quite mesmeric.

Frankly I'm pretty sure she's having sex. Group sex. There's definitely a man behind her because a hairy hand reaches forward for a swig of the beer. Then a tattooed fist comes in from the front to grab the bottle. Oh, and there's someone underneath; they want Guinness too. Thirsty work, group sex.

You might still find the film of this on the web, if you haven't been sent a viral of it already. It's one of those clips that's perfect for passing round. It's surprising, a little bit shocking, funny. You want to share it. It's been quite a hit on YouTube.

Guinness, though, is not happy. Guinness had nothing to do with the making of the film and says that it's damaging to the brand. So it's asked YouTube to take it down. Last time I checked it was still there, though the original version, by a film-maker called Deschatz, had disappeared. Instead there was a message: "This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Diageo, PLC".

Now, I know what you're thinking: "Yeah, yeah. Another brand sets out to kick up a storm of controversy in the name of PR." Cynics. Actually, for the record, Deschatz – whose own posting of the film notched up over 360,000 hits before it was withdrawn – has said he shot the film "for fun" but now, thanks to Diageo's intervention, "it's all over. No more good times for anyone." Not true, of course; the film lives on across the web, and possibly in your in-box.

And do you know what, it's good. It's professional, imaginative, edgy. If Guinness had set out to make something underground – cool, funky, a film demanding to be sought out, passed on, a film that hits the lads-mag-reading target square on – really it couldn't have done much better. And you have to say that it gives the adland pros a run for their beer money.

We live in a time when brands are public currency for punters to manipulate, pull apart, play with, make their own, a time when marketers really have no choice but to cede some control: as the "fake" viral itself put it, "Guinness. Share one with a friend. Or two." Clearly that's hard for brands and their stewards to come to terms with. But I'm left thinking Guinness should really feel quite proud that people want to play around with its brand, have fun with it. Particularly when the end result might sell some pints.

Guinness might be offended about a fake ad made by a punter, but really the theme of the past few weeks has been legit ads that have offended punters.

Now there's a poll running on an American advertising website asking readers to vote whether they find some featured ads offensive.

One of the ads is for Snickers. It stars Eighties A-Team star Mr T firing chocolate bars from a machine gun at a hip-swinging speed walker he reckons is "a disgrace to the man race". A knot of consumers reckon that's homophobic.

Another ad in the "offensive?" poll is for Churchill Insurance. Does Churchill's nodding dog say "fuck" at the end of the commercial? Take a look at some of the (doctored?) copies on YouTube and make your own mind up. Churchill would doubtless love you to. Perhaps that was the idea all along, perhaps it's all just a stunt to get the ad talked about. It wouldn't be the first, second or third time.

Anyway, although the poll is running on a site aimed predominantly at a US audience, two of the three ads in the poll are resolutely British. They're written for a British audience with British cultural reference points, British sensibilities and a British sense of humour. Are Americans really qualified to judge whether they're offensive in the context for which they were created?

Probably not, though Mars for one would disagree with me. Last week, in the heat of the farrago, it pulled the Snickers ad, even though the barrage of complaints was almost wholly generated in the US. No matter that the ad has never been broadcast over there; sensitive American pressure groups have objected and it's been whipped off British screens.

Unfortunately, the answer increasingly seems to be "yes". A few weeks ago Heinz's US HQ pulled a UK ad because it showed two men kissing (ironically the two ads were made by the same London agency: Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO). With both the Heinz and Mars examples it seems that the local client, the local agency and the general tenor of reaction amongst local consumers was over-ruled by the US parent company.

The fact is that what the Americans, and indeed the rest of the world, think about UK advertising does matter now that the internet has given all communications a global reach. You can find the Churchill and Snickers ads in several places on the worldwide web.

So do the originators of these campaigns have a duty to ensure that their work meets acceptable standards of taste and decency worldwide? Trouble is, there's no such thing as a common global standard on what's offensive and to try to find one is to aim for pointless mediocrity.

And if a minority of people take offence, does that automatically mean something was offensive? Of course not. Ask our Advertising Standards Authority, whose job it is to adjudicate on complaints against ads. By no means are all accusations of offensiveness met with the enforced withdrawal of campaigns.

The important thing is that in the UK so much care and attention is paid to ensuring our ads meet reasonable benchmarks of honesty and decency, and that swift and decisive action is taken by an independent professional third party when on rare occasions they don't. Are the likes of Heinz and Mars saying that's not enough any more?

No doubt their intentions are good. Both companies have admirable reputations as responsible and respectable global businesses and clearly they're trying to do the right thing.

But they have set a dangerous precedent that will surely affect not only their own future advertising output but that of other big international brands. What place does local creative risk-taking and innovative thinking have in a climate where fear of causing far-flung offence is so acute?

Claire Beale is editor of Campaign